German School of Swordsmanship

The German school of fencing (Deutsche Fechtschule) was taught throughout the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th to the 17th centuries as described in the Fechtbücher (“fight books” or “combat manuals”). It notably comprises the techniques of the two-handed longsword (Langschwert).

Most of the authors are, or claim to be, in the tradition of the 14th century master Johannes Liechtenauer. The earliest surviving treatise on Liechtenauer’s system is contained in Ms. 3227a. The system as presented puts much emphasis on simplicity, speed and efficiency, forming a deadly martial art fit for serious combat.

The history of the German school spans roughly 250 years, or eight to ten generations of masters (depending on the dating of Liechtenauer), from 1350 to 1600.

Our earliest source, Ms. 3227a of 1389 already mentions a number of masters, considered peers of Liechtenauer’s, Hanko Döbringer, Andres Jud, Jost von der Nyssen, and Niklaus Preuss. Probably active in the early 1400s were Martin Hundsfeld and Ott Jud, but sources are sparse until the mid 15th century.

The mid 1400s mark the peak and decline of the “Society of Liechtenauer” with Peter von Danzig, Sigmund Ringeck and Paulus Kal. Kal’s contemporary Hans Talhoffer was possibly involved with the foundation of the Brotherhood of St. Mark who enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on teaching martial arts for the best part of a century, from 1487 until 1570.

Late 15th centuries masters include Johannes Lecküchner, Hans von Speyer, Peter Falkner, and Hans Folz. With the 16th century, the school becomes more of a sport and less of a martial art designed for judicial duels or the battlefield. Early 16th century masters include Hans Wurm and Jörg Wilhalm.

In the mid 16th century, there were first attempts at preservation and reconstruction of the teachings of the past century, notably by Paulus Hector Mair. The foundation of the Federfechter in 1570 at Vienna falls into this late period. The final phase of the tradition stretches from the late 16th to the early 17th century, with masters such as Joachim Meyer and Jakob Sutor.

In the 17th century, rapier fencing of the Italian school becomes fashionable, with treatises such as Salvator Fabris’, and the German tradition, falling into disfavour as old-fashioned and unrefined among the baroque nobility, was discontinued.

Disciplines: While at the focus of attention for reasons of prestige, the longsword was in no way fundamental to the German school, which was rather built on principles of wrestling and fencing with the messer. The foundation of all combat was seen in wrestling (Ringen). Swordfencing in particular was considered a derivation of fencing with the Messer. Also part of the curriculum were fighting with the dagger Degen (mainly the roundel dagger) and with pole weapons. Two other disciplines besides Blossfechten involved the sword: fencing with (single-handed) sword and buckler (or a large shield in the case of judicial combat according to Swabian law), and armoured fighting (Harnischfechten), the latter reserved for nobility.

Unarmoured longsword: The principal discipline is unarmoured fencing with the longsword (Blossfechten). At the basis of the system are four basic wards (Leger, Huten), five ‘master-strikes’ (Meisterhau), and three time concepts.

page of Mscr. Dresd. C 93 by Paulus Hector Mair (1540s)

A characteristic introductory verse of Liechtenauer’s, often repeated in later manuscripts, echoes classic 14th century chivalry, not withstanding that during most of its lifetime, the German school was very much in bourgeois hands:

(fol 18r) Jung Ritter lere / got lip haben frawen io ere / So wechst dein ere / Uebe ritterschaft und lere / kunst dy dich zyret und in krigen sere hofiret
“Young knight, learn to love God and revere women, so that your honour grows. Practice knighthood and learn the Art that dignifies you, and brings you honour in battle.”

At the centre of the art lies emphasis on swiftness, as well as balance and good judgement:

(fol. 20r) vor noch swach stark Indes / an den selben woertern leit alle kunst / meister lichtnawers / Und sint dy gruntfeste und der / kern alles fechtens czu fusse ader czu rosse / blos ader in harnuesche
“‘Before’, ‘after’, ‘weak’, ‘strong’, Indes (‘meanwhile’), on these five words hinges the entire art of master Lichtenauer, and they are the foundation and the core of all combat, on foot or on horseback, unarmoured or armoured.”

The terms ‘before’ (vor) and ‘after’ (nach) correspond to offensive and defensive positions. While in the vor, one dictates his opponent’s actions and thus is in control of the engagement, while in the nach, one responds to the decisions made by his opponent. Under Liechtenauer’s system, a combatant must always strive to be in control of the engagement—that is, in the vor. ‘Strong’ (stark) and ‘weak’ (swach) relate to the amount of force that is applied.

Here, neither is better than the other, but one needs to counter the opponent’s action with a complementary reaction; strength is countered with weakness, and weakness with strength. Indes is a somewhat mysterious term. It seems to refer to the instant of contact with the opponent’s blade, where an experienced fencer may, by ‘feeling’ (fühlen), guess his next intentions and decide “indes“, immediately, on the most favourable move.

Techniques: other terms in Liechtenauers system (most of them referring to positions or actions applicable in mid-combat, when the blades are in contact) include:

  • Absetzen: ‘setting-aside’, deflecting a thrust or stroke at the same time as thrusting.
  • Doublieren: ‘double’, the immediate redoubling of a displaced stroke
  • Durchlaufen: ‘going-through’, a technique by which one combatant “runs through” his opponent’s attack to initiate grappling (wrestling) with him.
  • Durchwechseln: ‘switching-through’, name for various techniques for escaping a bind by sliding the sword’s point out from underneath the blade and then thrusting to another opening.
  • Händedrücken: ‘pressing of hands’, the execution of an Unterschnitt followed by an Oberschnitt such that the wrists of the opponent are sliced all the way around.
  • Hängen: ‘hanging’ (upper/lower, left/right)
  • Mutieren: ‘mutate’, change of attack method, changing a displaced stroke into a stab, or a displaced stab into a stroke.
  • Nachreisen: ‘pursuit’, the act of pre-emptively attacking an opponent by “pursuing” (following) his movements and anticipating his actions.
  • Ãœberlaufen: ‘going-over’ or ‘overrunning’, the act of countering a stroke or thrust made from below with a stroke or thrust from above
  • Versetzen: ‘displacement’ (upper/lower, left/right), to parry an attack by striking the incoming blade.
  • Zucken: ‘twitching’ a technique used in a strong bind between blades in which a combatant goes weak in the bind so as to disengage his blade from the bind and cuts to the other side of the other combatant’s blade. This technique is based upon the concept of using weakness against strength.

Armoured combat: Combat in full plate armour made use of the same weapons as Blossfechten, the longsword and dagger (possibly in special make optimized for piercing armour), but the techniques were entirely different. Attacking an opponent in plate armour offers two basic possibilities: percussive force, or penetration at joints or unprotected areas. Percussion was realized with the Mordhau, attacks with the hilt holding the sword at the blade, and penetration into openings of the armour with the Halbschwert, which allowed stabbing attacks with increased precision.

From the evidence of the Fechtbücher, most armoured fights were concluded by wrestling moves, with one combattant falling to the ground. Lying on the ground, he could then be easily killed with a stab into his visor or another opening of the armour.